Greek Orthodox Easter! What an ideal time to be visiting Greece! If you have found yourself in full Athens exploration mode during this holiday of holidays for Greeks, you’re certainly in for a treat! Time-old traditions, passed on from generation to generation, tightly interweaving religion and culture, are still honored to this day by one and all.
The customs are so many and so colorful all throughout Greece, so rich and deeply woven into the tapestry of our history, that you will find yourself fascinated during the countdown to Easter Sunday and the days to follow.
Preparations for the most important feast of the year start seven weeks prior, on “Clean Monday” when believers or those looking to cleanse their systems start fasting. The period of lent will last up until Saturday night leading to the Resurrection of Christ when people will flock the churches with candles, filling up the courtyards and surrounding streets.
As many people abstain from meat during this period, you will find a plethora of vegetarian options at bakeries all around Athens as well as restaurants and souvlaki shops. Yes, people may request mushrooms or other meatless fillings in their classic souvlakis, elevating the popular meal to an acceptable option for these days. Seafood will also pop up more often in all menus as well as traditional vegetable-based dishes, which offer a great opportunity to enrich your palate with many Mediterranean delicacies.
All throughout the Holy Week, the mood is more subdued as people attend church daily awaiting the crucifixion, culminating in a celebratory explosion on Easter Sunday when people gather home or in taverns for skewed lamb and goat, pork and all kinds of time-honored dishes. The music is loud, the wine flows endlessly and the “opas” are aplenty!
On Holy Tuesday, the Hymn of “Kassiani” is sung in many churches and it is a truly melodic hymn, performed only once a year and one of the most popular places to listen to it in Athens, is the Agios Nikolaos church in Old Town Plaka.
On Holy Wednesday, why not venture downtown to the popular Ermou street, where morning communion is performed at the Church of Panagia Kapnikarea? It is one of the oldest churches in Athens, built over an ancient temple.
On Holy Thursday, traditionally, we bake and dye eggs. You will find red dyed eggs symbolizing the blood of Christ everywhere, as well as other color variations decorating supermarket shelves and tavern tables. The custom dictates that you go around the table tapping each other’s red egg and when your opponent’s cracks moving on to the next one until there is a winner in the group, earning good luck for the rest of the year! Ovens are in full overload mode at homes and in bakeries on every corner, dishing out special Easter cookies and of course the famous traditional sweet bread, called “tsoureki”. The braided, golden brown “tsoureki” comes in many varieties, and you’ll be sorry not to have tasted all the stuffed versions during your stay. From all kinds of chocolate to chestnut fillings, this traditional delicacy can be enjoyed all year round although it truly holds the top spot in everyone’s heart during this time of the year.
On Good Friday, church bells toll reminding everyone of the crucifixion of Christ and flags are flown at half mast. In the evening, the “Epitaph”, a shrine, beautifully decorated by everyone attending mass, symbolizing Christ’s tomb, is carried out of church in a solemn procession followed by hundreds of visitors with candles. It is a solemn tradition, deeply touching and often spiritual in which everyone is welcome to partake. Encompassed in the epitaph march are multiple choruses and bands. When the shrine returns to the church, evening mass follows and members of the congregation and other visitors can take a carnation or other flower from it as a keepsake.
At the Kaisariani and the Asteriou Monasteries on the north side of Mount Hymettus, the service is held at 2pm instead of at night which is a delightful opportunity to combine a lovely walk on forested mountain paths with the beautiful procession.
Another great option is Lycabettus Hill, where you will be able to view dozens of more processions all around Athens.
On Easter Saturday, keeping on with a thousand year old ritual, the ‘Holy Fire’ is lit at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where it is believed that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Every year, the light is then flown into Athens on a chartered flight and received by the Metohi tou Panagiou Tafou church in Plaka. This is an experience you will cherish forever. It is where candles are lit and then dispersed to churches throughout the Attica region in time for the services leading to the Resurrection. After midnight, fireworks light up the night skies over the capital in a full blown wonderful celebration.
Much like in August, in the week leading up to Easter Sunday, many Greeks evacuate the capital for some family time in their villages, far away from the city, thus freeing up some space for those of us who know better and can relish in the beautiful traditional side of Athens during these holy days, combining exploration with authentic experiences.